Custom Wheelbuilds, A Dying Art

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Once upon a time, bike shops had to build the wheels for all their road bikes. Now custom-built wheels seem exotic and wheel-building is in danger of becoming a dying art. Regardless, there are several good reasons to go custom for your next wheelset.

I want to be clear that I don’t have a problem with factory wheelsets. There is a great range of products out there at every price-point and you generally get a little bit more than what you pay for thanks to fierce competition in the market. However, they have their limitations…

The pros and cons of factory-built wheelsets

The factory wheelset has evolved into an integrated system where the hub and spokes are matched to the rim and a strong and reliable wheel can be built with fewer spokes and radial lacing. In fact, the reliability of these wheelsets is impressive; few of these systems ever seem to suffer from loose spokes. At the same time, factory wheelsets offer enormous convenience, riders can buy a new set at short notice after admiring them on the showroom floor.

Unfortunately, integrated wheel systems suffer from a lack of compatibility with other brands or even with different models from the same manufacturer. In addition, proprietary spokes are difficult to source at short notice and expensive to replace, as are the rims, such that in the event of an accident it is often more convenient and cost-effective to replace the wheelset rather than the rim and/or spokes. I don’t have much trouble with this thinking for lower-priced wheelsets, but once the asking price goes into triple figures, I believe a good set of hubs deserves to be re-used. Indeed, the rims and spokes of any wheelset are essentially disposable items because the sidewalls (of aluminium rims especially) will inevitably wear and the spokes will fail with time. So while it will always be cheaper to replace the rims and spokes of a factory wheelset, you generally won’t be able to upgrade or experiment with different rims.

The braking track of all rims become concave and prone to sudden tearing with extended use. Some rims have indicators that allow you can monitor this wear, otherwise you can use a ruler as shown here. Here’s my old wheels with the back wheel (right) showing more wear than the front after 3 years of use.

The pros and cons of going custom

Custom wheelsets are as strong and reliable as factory sets, but even better, they are purpose-built and refined to suit your particular needs. You get to decide what your priorities are amongst price, weight, strength, durability, and aerodynamics. A custom wheelset also gives you the opportunity to express your individuality, be it through the use of colour, exotic parts, or spoke lacing patterns. You get all this, plus the smug satisfaction of riding on a set of wheels that have been built just for you, for around the same price as a factory wheelset with a similar spec.

There are other advantages. Custom-built wheels are normally built with standard (j-bend) spokes that are widely available (and relatively inexpensive), so even if you can’t get a black semi-aero spoke at short notice, you’ll be able to get some kind of spoke that is the same length to get you back on the road again. Similarly, you won’t have any trouble replacing standard nipples, and if an emergency repair is required, any bike shop will be able to work on the wheel with a standard spoke wrench.

Some maintain that custom wheels ride better than factory wheels, though I’m not so sure a measurable difference exists between the two. Custom wheels tend to benefit from better workmanship, however most of this effort goes into the things that can’t be felt once the wheels are on the bike.

The disadvantages to custom wheels? Firstly, you will have to wait for them to be built. You won’t be able to pick them up, take them for a test ride, consider their weight, or admire their looks until after they have been built. Second, you have to decide on each component of the wheel (spoke count, bracing angles, lacing patterns and other associated minutiae), which for some can be a tiresome process. However, this is where you get to refine and individualise a wheel, and trust me, it’s worth the effort. Besides, it’s really not that hard…

How to put together the parts for custom wheel build

There are just 4 parts to collect for a set of wheels: the rims, hubs, spokes and nipples. We can ignore the spokes and nipples for now, which leaves two parts to think about.

A custom wheel build typically starts with the rims, or, the hubs. If you start with the rims, then they will dictate the hubs you’ll need, and vice versa. The reason of course is the number of holes in the rims and hubs. The two have to be matched.

Now, decide on your priorities. What do you want from the new wheels and/or how do you intend to use them? This is where you make some decisions about price, weight, strength, durability, and aerodynamics. Once you have your priorities clear, the rest is easy. Here are some basic concepts to help you with your selection of rims and hubs:

Price You get what you pay for especially when it comes to precision and weight.
Weight Low weights can only be achieved with less material, which tends to undermine durability.
Strength More spokes provide greater strength and rigidity, as do taller rims.
Durability Durability is closely related to strength for the rims and spokes. The quality (price) of the hubs generally predicts their durability.
Aerodynamics Look for taller, wider rims with less spokes.

A quick case study: my new wheels

I recently built a pair of wheels for myself, and my priorities started with the hubs. I wanted some high precision hubs that would be in service for several years. I don’t do a lot of races and I’m not a specialist, I want my wheels to be versatile and robust, so that ruled out a low spoke count and light-weight hubs. My final requirement was a Campagnolo freehub, which narrowed the field considerably, and I chose DT 240s hubs. One strong selling point for me was that these hubs offer tool-free servicing.

DT makes their hubs in several drillings, so that gave me a lot of freedom for my rim choice. Carbon rims were not going to make for a versatile and robust wheelset (or suit my modest budget), so I was left to choose from the range of low- and mid-profile aluminium rims (I was tempted to give tubulars a try, but I couldn’t convince myself they would be practical). I’ve had plenty of experience with aluminium clincher rims, but recent developments in rim technology, namely tubeless-compatibility and an increase in rim width (to 23mm) to improve aerodynamics and road feel had me intrigued. However, both features aren’t widely available outside of factory wheelsets, so that essentially left me with a choice between Stan’s NoTubes Alpha tubeless rims and Hed’s Belgium C2 rims.The Hed rims looked a little more robust to me, plus the nipples were easier to install. I decided on 24 holes rather than 32, my only concession to aerodynamics; if I were a heavier rider and/or more powerful, then 32 holes would have been my only choice.

Spokes, nipples and lacing patterns

All decent spokes are stainless steel, but they vary in their thickness. Thicker spokes are stronger, but heavier. You can save some weight by selecting double gauge spokes that are thicker at the ends where extra strength is required. Interestingly, semi-aero spokes are actually strengthened by the forging required to flatten the spoke. I have built more wheels with DT spokes than any other brand, so I have a bit of product loyalty. For my build, I selected DT’s Aerolite Race spokes based on the promise of extra durability.

There are just two choices for nipples: aluminium or brass. If you plan to ride in the rain, then brass is your only choice, because aluminium nipples will corrode. Aluminium nipples are a lot lighter, but they can only provide a maximum weight saving of 20 grams/wheel, so I can’t recommend them for anything other than a lightweight race wheel.

Spoke lacing is something best left to the wheelbuilder, who will have a recommendation that suits the number of spokes in the wheel. Keep in mind that if you want radial lacing (where the spokes do not cross each other) then you should use purpose-built hubs. Radial lacing places a huge demand on the hub flange, and purpose-built hubs are manufactured to withstand the extra stress. There’s no reason why any hub can’t be used for radial lacing, front or rear, as long as you understand that it will increase the risk of the hub flange breaking.

A few resources

Fairwheel Bikes builds a lot of custom wheels and have taken the time to post a very detailed hub shootout. Keep in mind they don’t aim to rank the hubs, just provide you with their traits so you can match them to your needs. Fairwheel have also taken a good look at skewers. Alternatively, if you have any questions about custom wheels or need advice, feel free to drop me a line at or leave a comment.

By the way, how do my new wheels ride?

The Hed rims are interesting. Wider rims require less air in the tires, but I was surprised by how much less this turned out to be. I set out on my first few rides with 85-90psi in the tires, and I wasn’t impressed, but after I lowered the pressure to 75-80psi, then the wheels started to sing. As a comparison, standard rims feel like they are rolling on a hard rail compared to the supple, almost pillowy ride of the C2 rims. I can’t say one is better than the other, but the Hed rims make for a much smoother ride. Indeed, they work better as the road gets rougher and seem most at home on hard packed dirt, which suggests to me that they might be a great choice for cyclocross.

I really like the DT 240s hubs. They roll beautifully and I’m able to carry more speed through corners. I used 2-cross lacing for front and rear, and while the wheels lack the rigidity that characterises some factory wheelsets built with aluminium spokes, they don’t flex under the demands of my weight (~73kg) or power output (masters B grade front-runner when I’m in form). As a low profile rim, they are unperturbed by crosswinds, and if the rim affords any aerodynamic advantage, then it’s lost on me. At around 475g, the rim is no lightweight, and as such, suffers some inertia when accelerating. Regardless, they seem robust, and I’m looking forward to more time on these new custom built wheels.

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